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Van Der Graaf Generator - ALT CD (album) cover


Van Der Graaf Generator


Eclectic Prog

2.56 | 283 ratings

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Honorary Collaborator
1 stars VDGG move into exploratory territory and produce a disaster-piece.

The album cover looks as though we are peering through a hole in the wall at VDGG recording this album. Unfortunately someone at the studio must have had a hole in their head to think that people would be genuinely interested in an album full of improvisations.

"ALT" is the latest Van der Graaf Generator album that features original members Peter Hammill on guitar and keyboards, Hugh Banton on organ, bass pedals and bass guitar, and drums by Guy Evans. Normally I would be salivating over a new VDGG release as I am a huge fan of their inimitable sound, however this album was not on my number one hit list for a number of reasons. With the knowledge that this album has no vocals whatsoever one would be forgiven for not being too thrilled to indulge in listening, because Peter Hammill is a master on vocals and the absence of them are always going to be a moot point for conjecture. Secondly, the songs were simply selected improvisations during recording sessions and never really meant to see the light of day and be lumped together here. Thirdly, the instrumentals on the "Present" bonus CD were quite dull so this new album did not show signs of promise. Indeed "ALT" feels like a bunch of bonus fillers and hardly any stand out as nothing more than curios worth one listen and then discarded. If they had been performed by any other band other than the VDGG masters, I would perhaps have no interest at all. However, I have everything related to the band so this album was an inevitable listen, but I was not expecting great things and I did not receive any for that matter.

The songs, if you can call them that, are very dull at first. The first three songs, 'Earlybird', that sounds like someone taped a bird whistling, and then Woody Woodpecker joined in, 'Extractus', nothing more than a short burst of percussion over a improv guitar lick, and 'Sackbutt', an organ filler, just cruise along with ambient melancholy atmospheres, and some are less than 2 minutes long and perhaps should have been merged together as one longer song. They have no impact at all and are frustratingly dull with no melodies or specific musical soloing. I could not believe this was VDGG who are usually so brilliant at their craft. The tracks were recorded during soundchecks or studio gigs as the band were noodling around searching for new sounds and melodies but should they be released for public consumption. Heck, if all bands released their in between songs kanoodling we would be inundated with this mediocrity. The problem is rather than producing memorable glorious prog classics, they do indeed simply sound like they are improvising in a studio in between playing masterpieces such as 'Killer' or 'A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers'. Of course there are no masterworks such as those here, not even close, but I hoped something would jump out and bite me.

'Collossus' is the first lengthy track at about 6 and a half minutes so I hoped for greater things after the slow dull start. It features some interesting low keyboards and improv percussion. The organ is quite chilling, and it is darkly atmospheric, symphonic even. It builds with flute synth and harpsichord sounds as well as some baritone. The percussion hi hat work is excellent as can be expected from the great Evans. The track continues to build with intense organ flourishes, sporadic jazz drumming and some weird sounds. Overall the best one so far but still nothing compared to previous VDGG.

'Batty Loop' returns to the less than 2 minutes filler, and it is just basically frenetic percussion and improvised electric piano. Just a bunch of noise that has no appeal to me at all. At this stage I am already frustrated with the album and hope it will improve dramatically. 'Splendid' is a decent length at 3:45 and is a slow paced heavy drum pounder with a grinding organ solo. I quite liked this one, especially the dramatic organ flourishes and odd bassline. The track is a darker improvised instrumental and even has a semblance of melody hidden within. Perhaps it is the best on the album at this stage and I wished that the rest of the album could have been as intriguing. The drum solo at the end is fantastic; yes, splendid is an apt description.

'Repeat After Me' is 7:39 in length so is one of the longest tracks on the album. It begins with beautiful piano and guitar notes. It hangs onto a pretty dreamy melody for a while, and then moves into some mesmirising passages of piano tinkling along with Banton's bass pedals. Another of the better tracks on "ALT", and thankfully lengthy enough to enjoy without interruption.

'Elsewhere' is another longer track, 4:19, and has some eerie effects that showed promise. Again the percussion takes centre stage with frenetic Evans attacking his snare and hi hat with force. The effect is quite mesmirising especially the weird guitar playing and synth swirls. This is totally experimental and show the band exploring a diverse sound. It settles into a jazz fusion feel still with the spacey synth techniques. I like the rhythm that locks in sounding like a spaced up Miles Davis. Overall, not bad and nothing like the VDGG you would have heard before.

'Here's One I Made Earlier' with the amusing title is 5:44 of sheer exploratory improvisation. It drones with menace and draws one in gradually with some odd guitar sounds. It sounds very similar to King Crimson's Fripp for a while. The spacey textures are prevalent and I hoped it would build into some dynamic musical shapes. However this one meanders on one note for a length of time, and never really takes off. The band seem to find an interesting sound but then they labour on it too long, over doing it with obscene self indulgence. Even just a verse from Hammill would have helped here, but if this is the new direction for the band I may be jumping off the the good ship VDGG.

'Midnite Or So' has an intriguing intro with cathedral organ sounding like walking into an old church preparing for a service. It sounds as filler as the rest of the album. The organ is fuzzy and almost feels like the same melody as a classic I can't remember but have heard somewhere. The drums are loud and splashy adding a heavy atmosphere. I like the organ grinding on this, but it kind of sounds like the middle part of a song rather than a stand alone piece.

'D'Accord' is next, a 2:30 minute keyboard driven track, with dark atmospheres. It sounds like part of 'Plague of Lighthouse Keepers' at the start. Unfortunately it meanders on for too long and doesn't develop into anything really. This feels like such a lazy album that may have been completed in a single day; it just fails to impress me at all. 'Mackerel Ate Them' runs for almost 5 minutes, and begins with crashing drums and improvised keys that sound like an insane horn. The drums are incredible on this, wild and frenetic as only Evans can be. He has a field day on this album but just sounds like he is doing what he feels like regardless with what is happening with the keys and bass. Indeed, all members sound like they are playing their own song on this. This is quite fascinating for a while but soon wears out its welcome. There is no structure and the messy musicianship is all over the place. As the drums fade out a new sound is introduced sounding like a fizzling synth and then some spacey keys join in. The effect is rather creepy and then the drums return just as I was beginning to enjoy the weirdness. A shame really as this one had potential to develop into something special, but it just does not go anywhere. 'Tuesday, The Riff' is next, at almost 3 minutes in length, it has a doomy melody that I latched onto immediately. The organ is again cathedral like and well played as expected. The guitars are heavier and hold the downbeat riff as manic percussion blazes away. Again this one actually jumped out as one of the best tracks thanks to the atmosphere and especially the riff and towering percussion.

'Dronus' ends the album with a lengthy 10 minute mini epic that I had high hopes for as most lengthy VDGG tracks are awesome. It begins with the obligatory drone creating an air of portentous threats. The atmosphere is intense as the drone pulsates and builds with layers of synths and some esoteric violin sounds. There is no percussion or guitar just swathes of synths and the overall feel is like floating in space. Eventually the first drum beat is heard, jazzy and out of sync but it does not overwhelm the meandering soundscape. I was quite hooked on this sound for a while but I looked at the track time and it still had about 4 minutes to go. The percussion keeps an interesting feel and the drone begins to lessen in intensity as the drums build to very fast backwards percussion. There are other backwards sweeps of synth and this is one of the more chilling tracks on "ALT". It is very long and drawn out and, despite having an initial impact, it is hard to maintain the interest on one note, but it is not as bad as some of these other tracks that feel like throwaways. In fact this track is akin to the work of Tangerine Dream or Can.

The problem with the album is not so much the absence of vocals, I don't mind instrumental music at all, rather the problem lies in the simple indulgent improvisation and raw quality. It sounds as though you were watching the band live as they fill in between actual songs, and indeed this is really what it is. We are a fly on the wall listening in on the improvisations of VDGG. But it doesn't work as an album to return to. It may be OK for one listen but who wants to shell out for an album to listen to once? King Crimson are known to produce lengthy musical improvisations on the live stage but somehow they pull it off in a much more endearing manner. Perhaps one could forgive the album if it had been the bonus CD to "Grounding In Numbers" but I believe strongly that this album will really alienate some listeners from the incredible potential of the band. I am really at a loss as to the poor quality of this album as I absolutely adore most of the VDGG catalogue. I would prefer any of their albums over this, and that shocks me because this is the latest VDGG, and it is not even as good as their debut. Strike this album down as their definitive worst. Disappointment of the year, without a doubt.

AtomicCrimsonRush | 1/5 |


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